Speaking in Code: a closer look at dialogue from a Steampunk writer’s pespective

This blog post has been inspired by a conversation I had at GenreCon with Diane Demetre, the Gold Coast Romance author of Dancing Queen.

There are lots of different ways of understanding dialogue, because there are as many types of dialogue as there are types of people. Understanding how a conversation might change in different circumstances is an important part of understanding how to write dialogue.The conversation between new acquaintances is going to be very different to an exchange between old friends, because old friends develop a ‘code’ without realising it.

For Example:


“Isn’t it hot today? The heat is making me quite thirsty.”

“I’m thirsty too. Do you want to stop and share a pot of tea?”

“Yes, please. That would be lovely.”

Old Friends:

“I’m parched today.”

“Cuppa tea?”


In this exchange, exactly the same information is being imparted, but the friends are comfortable enough with each other that they no longer need to be socially polite and formal. The bonds of trust and affection are already in place, and familiarity with each other means they have a good idea of what the other means even with one word sentences.

This holds true even in a more formal era like the Victorian era. This is because friends and families develop their own coded languages. This isn’t a conscious effort to hide secret meanings in their conversations, but something that flows naturally from things like shared jokes and experiences. People are called by nicknames; common exchanges (like requests for a cuppa) end up shortened; certain words will have private meanings.  Even with the best will in the world and severely formal social rituals, people develop these conversational codes.

Artists are...

At the panel on Banter at GenreCon, one of the points discussed was what isn’t said is often just as important as what is said in a conversation. This can be an important indicator of what concerns are central to a character. But what isn’t said can also be due to this conversational shorthand used between friends and family. You have to take care to indicate these differences of intent when writing dialogue. This is why writing dialogue is both a challenge and exciting.

In a Steampunk narrative, it can’t be assumed the reader will understand the ‘code’ if you make it too technical or complicated. Don’t be tempted to write gobble-de-gook scientific terms when describing some gadget or process, because that may bore or confuse your audience. Keep jargon to a minimum, and make sure that clarity doesn’t suffer on behalf of characterisation.


Filed under Characterization, Dialogue, Steampunk, writing, Writing Style

2 responses to “Speaking in Code: a closer look at dialogue from a Steampunk writer’s pespective

  1. Jack Tyler

    Ah, the little things we miss because they’re taken so much for granted. This is a brilliant piece of insight that many writers I’m sure overlook. I am often told that dialogue and character interactions are my main strength, and I have never given this aspect of communication a conscious thought. This is a wonderful piece of insight, and has caused me to mark your blog for further reading. Quality work! Don’t be surprised to see me around in the future.

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